It really doesn’t get more irreverent and outlandish than the cult films of Robert Downey Sr. and let’s face it, every cinephile worth his salt loves an excuse to talk about the underground filmmaker’s outré classic “Putney Swope.”
And so one of the more strange and wonderfully offbeat box sets to come to DVD late last month was Criterion‘s Eclipse set dedicated to the unconventional works of Robert Downey Sr. titled, “Up All Night With Robert Downey Sr.” The father of Robert Downey Jr. and a satirical, experimental and counter cultural filmmaker in New York in the late 1960s, many of Downey Sr.’s vehmently uncommercial and mischievous pictures have been virtually awol for decades outside of small, appreciative arthouses like New York’s Anthology Film Archives.
Often featuring taboo and trangressive topics, shot on shoestring budgets (guerilla style without permits), utilizing non-actors, told with often whimsical aesthetics (“Chafed Elbows” is mostly visualized via 35 mm photographs, voice-over dialogue and minor animation) and employing random running times without regard to traditional film lengths, RDSr.’s zany pictures are part LSD-soaked bohemia, part subversive Merry Pranksterism with a pinch of shit-disturbing dadism thrown in for good measure. As critical essayist Michael Koresky writes in the box set’s booklet, the fiercely independent and idiosyncratic Downey Sr. used film “to freestyle and bop.”
Included on the Eclipse set are Downey Sr.’s absurdist political screed, “Babo 73,” a tale about incest and odd pregnancies (“Chafed Elbows” often described as a “riot of bad taste”) and the director’s most heralded film, the advertising, race relations and consumer culture send-up “Putney Swope” — a film so damn caustic and funny it deserves its own two-disc pimp Criterion edition, but we suppose we’ll take what we can get (you must check out this excellent slideshow essay Criterion created on the picture). Sadly missing are the surreal religious parody “Greaser’s Palace” and “Pound” which features dog and cats at an animal shelter played by human actors, including the debut of Robert Downey Jr. at five years old playing a puppy. We can only hope Criterion is hoping to put those two films out at a later date.
Meanwhile, a longtime admirer of ‘Swope’ and the films of Robert Downey Sr. is Paul Thomas Anderson who wove in references to the movie in “Boogie Nights” (Robert Downey Sr. has a small cameo and Don Cheadle‘s character Buck Swope, is named in homage). Criterion recently sat down PTA and RD Sr. for a chit chat about “Babo 73,” the aforementioned “Putney Swope,” the New York singles documentary-esque “No More Excuses” and perhaps Downey’s most bizarre film, “Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight.” Criterion cut the conversation into four clips which you can watch below. They don’t quite do the films justice at all, but if they encourage you to go out and explore the films of RDSr. they’ve done the job. Oh and they also describe why Downey always sub-credited himself as “A Prince” in all his films. Criterion’s “Up All Night” is out on DVD now.
Plus everyone’s favorite jingle from “Putney Swope.”